Mysticism in John Donne's poetry

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Introduction:

     John Donne cannot be treated as a great mystic poet. Because of his intellectuality, which is the dominating characteristic of Donne's poetry, he lacks essentially, mystical qualities. His very important poem, The Progress of the Soul has a mystical idea which is derived from Pythagorean philosophy.

      But Donne has entirely failed to utilise this idea properly. Instead of following the soul upwards in its way, he depicts it as merely jumping about from body to body. Thus we are conscious of an entire lack of any lift or grandeur of thought. "This poem helps us to understand how it was that Donne, though so richly endowed with intellectual gilis, yet failed to reach 'the highest rank as a poet. He was brilliant in particulars, but lacked the epic qualities of breadth, unity, and proportion, characteristics destined to be the distinctive marks of the school of which he is looked upon as the founder.

In spite of this drawback, Donne's attitude of mind is essentially mystical. His mystical attitude is reflected in his treatment of love and in his conception of women. For example, we note his mystical attitude in the poem, Ode : Of Our Sense of Sin written in memory of Elizabethan Drury on the Second anniversary of her death.
Mysticism in Poetry

Donne's attitude of mind essentially mystical:

      In spite of this drawback, Donne's attitude of mind is essentially mystical. His mystical attitude is reflected in his treatment of love and in his conception of women. For example, we note his mystical attitude in the poem, Ode : Of Our Sense of Sin written in memory of Elizabethan Drury on the Second anniversary of her death. Donne expresses his views in his mystical note

But we know ourselves least: Mere outward shew: Our minds so stere,
That our soules, no more than our eyes disclose
But forme and colour. Onely he who knowes Himself, knowes more

Donne's comparison of mental and spiritual processes with those of physical:

      One of the redeeming characteristics of Donne's poetry is his continual comparison of mental and spiritual with physical processes. The sense of analogy prevailing throughout nature is with him very strong. He believes firmly in man's potential greatness and the power within his own soul:

Seek we then ourselves; in our selves for as
Men force the Sun with much more force to pass
By gathering his beams with a crystal glass,
So we, if we into ourselves will tume
Blowing our sparks of virtue may out-bum
The straw which doth about our hearts sojourne.

(Letter to Mr. Rowland Woodword)

Dost thou love
Beauty ? (And beauty worthy'st is to move)
Poor couzened couzener that she and that thou
Which did begin to love are neither now:
You are both fluid, changed since yesterday
Next day repairs (but ill) last dayes decay.
Nor are, (although the river keep the name)
Yesterday's waters, and to-day's the same.

(The Progress of the Soul, The Second Anniversary, 389-96)

      Again in the poem The Progress of the Soul, although Donne failed to give expression to it, yet his belief in progress is unquenchable. He entirely shares the mystic's view that "man, to get towards Him that's Infinite, must be great."

Donne's mystical attitude in his treatment of love:

      Donne's mystical attitude is most clearly seen in his treatment of love. He holds the Platonic conception that love concerns the soul only. Love is independent of the body or bodily presence. He is the poet who expresses this idea in the most dignified and refined way at his best. The reader is so inspired that he feels that Donne believes it and that he has in some measure experienced it. In his poem The Undertaking, Donne expresses the discovery he has made of this higher and deeper kind of love. In The Ecstasy he describes the union of the souls of two lovers. The great value of this spiritual love is unaffected by time and space. In this poem, Soul's Joy, he has exquisitely expressed in the following verses:

O give no way to grief
But let belief
Of mutual love
This wonder to the vulgar prove
Our bodyes not wee move.

      In his verse letter to the Countess of Huntingdon, he expresses the same love in the following words:

'Tis love but wih such fatal weaknesses made,
That it destroyes it selfe with its owne shade.

      F.E. Spurgeon expresses his mystical atitude towards love: "He goes still further in the poem entitled Negative Love, where he says that love is such a passion as can only be, defined by negatives, for it is above apprehension, and his language here is closely akin to the description of the One or the God given by Plotinus in the sixth Ennead".

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